DALLAS — Civic chests fairly burst with pride here in 1985 when billionaire Ross Perot agreed to donate $8 million to beautify the huge park at White Rock Lake on the city's East Side.
Dallas would have its own version of Central Park, with thousands of trees, and beauty to rival Washington's cherry blossoms in springtime. But three years later, Perot largely reneged on his promise, saying the expansion was not going the way he wanted.
"Perot is a man who likes to get what he wants," said P. Michael Jung, a Dallas attorney and former city planning commissioner.
For years, Ross Perot has been a political heavyweight around Dallas, and not everyone is applauding. He is clearly popular and generous, but his actions here show that he is also capable of being uncompromising and heavy-handed when events do not go his way.
He has planted himself at the center of major controversies, and the fights have cast some shadows over his local image as a billionaire philanthropist with a common touch.
- He has been a strong supporter of the Dallas police--but he was quick to reprimand three officers when they stopped Perot's daughter-in-law for speeding and found a concealed weapon in her car.
- He is eager for publicity--but quick to call top newspaper executives if he does not like what he reads. Just last month, he became embroiled in a dispute with the publisher of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, who alleged that Perot tried to intimidate him after he published an unflattering story.
- Despite his just-plain-folks image, he has a strong penchant for security, and once tried to get city permission to build a helicopter pad on his property. Security was a major issue during the White Rock Lake dispute as well.
Attorney Ronald Kirk, former lobbyist for the city of Dallas, likens Perot to Bobby Knight, the legendary Indiana basketball coach, saying they both have a "my-way-or-the-highway" style.
"Perot is not for everyone," Kirk said, "but those who like him swear by him."
He is certainly revered in some circles here. The Dallas Times Herald, now defunct, described Perot in 1986 as a "man for all seasons" with a "rare blend of boldness, vision and compassion."
In fact, Perot is something of a loner who has kept his distance from the traditional Dallas business Establishment--or what's left of it after Texas' banking, real estate and oil industry collapses of the 1980s.
"He's not a socializer," says Tom Marquez, a family friend. "He's not your typical businessman who goes down to the Tuesday Chamber of Commerce lunch."
Part of Perot's local mystique derives from a simple style, even though he is said to be worth more than $3 billion, earned by--among other things--founding computer company Electronic Data Systems, then selling it to General Motors in 1984. Locals say they see him shopping at the local sporting goods store or driving to his Saturday haircut in an '87 Oldsmobile.
Perot's local image has long been nurtured through the Perot Foundation, run by his sister, Bette. He has pledged well over $100 million to varied causes, including $20 million to a local medical school and more than $10 million for a new concert hall.
Perot has also become a kind of medical healer to whom the desperate or needy--including Persian Gulf War burn victims--have turned for help.
He helped arrange special treatment for a Dallas police officer named J. J. Terrell, badly hurt in a Colorado skiing accident, and a neighbor named Bradley Urschel who nearly died in a West Texas car crash nearly a decade ago.
Terrell, a former SWAT team member and former security guard for the Perot family, and Urschel, a one-time Olympic hopeful in the decathlon, say Perot swooped in to help as they lay in comas far from home.
"I'm alive today because of Mr. Perot," said Urschel, a Princeton University grad who writes and illustrates children's books.
It is this side of Perot--kind, compassionate, action-oriented--that his supporters are eager to highlight. "He does that sort of thing all the time," Marquez said.
But Perot's role as benefactor has not always been smooth, as the White Rock Lake example suggests. Skeptics suggest that he makes his donations with strings attached.
He initially pledged to give the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society $8 million as part of a 10-year, $50-million expansion. He anted up $2 million as part of the expansion's first phase.
But after becoming disenchanted, he not only refused to donate the other $6 million, but sought a refund, plus interest, on what he had already given.
Those who followed the White Rock Lake affair say it showcased an unflattering side of Perot in that he spoke publicly before he had all the facts and became disenchanted when the public debate got heated and messy.
White Rock Lake is, by urban standards, a huge body of water--ringed by parkland and lovely homes. One problem was that many neighboring homeowners simply did not want so many trees--up to a million--cluttered around the lake.